A Workplace Romance at a Lesbian Magazine: Just As You Are by Camille Kellogg

the cover of Just as You Are

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In Camille Kellogg’s debut romance, Just As You Are, a workplace clash turns into a workplace crush.

Nether Fields, a long-running queer women’s online magazine, is on the verge of shutting down as Liz and her Nether Fields coworkers gather to mourn its passing. But when two wealthy lesbians swoop in to save the publication, these staff writers and close friends are given a second chance to uphold the magazine’s values. What Liz hasn’t told anyone is that she’s getting tired of being Nether Fields’ resident sex and relationship columnist, spending every day writing butt plug reviews and clickbait personality quizzes. She has bigger aspirations: to launch an independent writing career and publish her first novel.

But that dream gets squashed as Liz gets pulled back into the orbit of the Nether Fields culture, and into the thrall of one of its hot new owners, Daria. Daria militantly audits the magazine’s business practices, slashing budgets in an attempt to pull Nether Fields out of the red while alienating staff with her no-nonsense approach. Liz is equally repelled by and attracted to Daria’s intensity, unable to deny the allure of her confidence and androgynous fashion sense.

What starts as an antagonistic relationship (Daria basically calls Liz’s articles puerile fluff) slowly develops into something more nuanced. When the two share a car from New York to Boston for a work assignment, Liz starts to see beneath Daria’s business-like exterior. Daria provides a window into her strained relationship with her conservative, hard-to-please family. Liz confides in Daria about her writing dreams and her ongoing struggle to feel confident in her skin. It almost feels like they each accept the other person just as they are, as the book’s title suggests. But every time Daria seems to open up, she subsequently pulls away from Liz. Will their clashing personalities and workplace politics get in the way of a deeper connection?

What made this Pride and Prejudice inspired enemies-to-lovers story stand out to me was its exploration of Liz’s feelings about her gender and her struggle to express it authentically. Despite being immersed in accepting, queer work and home environments, Liz hasn’t quite hit her stride when it comes to presenting herself to the world, often choosing her wardrobe to conform to her environment on any given day. Typically our romantic heroines have already found their “look,” or fall into a certain bucket of queer identity, so it was refreshing to watch Liz navigate the moving target of her gender expression.

Like Austen, Kellogg explores class dynamics, in this case of a workplace being overhauled by wealthy benefactors. That said, Kellogg could have done more to explore the dynamics of the diverse cast of friends/coworkers that serve as the book’s vibrant backdrop. While Liz, who is white and cisgender, gets embroiled in a situationship with Daria, she simultaneously casts judgment on her coworker and roommate Jane, a Black trans woman, when Jane gets involved with the magazine’s other rich buyer, Bailey. Liz also teases Katie, another roommate and woman of color, for being hung up on an unrequited crush. There is an unacknowledged imbalance in the way Liz moves through the world that I would have preferred not go unchecked.

Read if:

  • You like to lovingly poke fun at queer culture sometimes.
  • You enjoyed The L Word: Generation Q in all its entangled millennial glory.
  • You want to reflect on your gender identity and presentation.

A Knife-Throwing Bisexual Mystery in 1940’s New York: Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

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Content Warnings: Homophobia, ableism, depictions of violence

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood is a fun and engaging mystery story, set in the backdrop of New York City in the direct aftermath of World War II. Willowjean Parker, who prefers the name Will, is a former circus performer and general ruffian.

After an encounter with Lillian Pentecost, the city’s premier lady detective, she is enlisted as the woman’s right hand. Pentecost’s increasing age and worsening multiple sclerosis mean that even simple investigations wear on her, and Will is just the woman to keep her in the game.

The story proper begins with the Collins case, a classic locked room mystery, with several characters theorizing a possible supernatural element. Abigail Collins was bludgeoned to death in her office during the annual Halloween party, with the very crystal ball that was just used during a seance to converse with her late husband… a late husband who died of suicide in the very same chair she was found murdered in. The door was locked, the windows barred. Who could have done it?

A mystery story lives and dies on its mystery, and I’m pleased to report that Fortune Favors the Dead does not disappoint. Spotswood has woven a complex and engaging story that nevertheless feels inevitable by the time that all the pieces are in place. I’m pleased that I was able to predict a few of the big reveals, but several were just out of my reach, though clear in hindsight. The mystery left me feeling satisfied, not frustrated or foolish, and that is one of its biggest successes.

Where the story really shines, however, is with the detectives. Lillian and Will, as well as their relationship with each other, stand above the rest of the story as main characters. Lillian is refined, clever, and deeply protective of her charge, as well as all of the women of New York City. She spends every Saturday holding open hours at her home, offering advice and consultations to any woman who comes in, no matter what they need. She is whip smart and with a reputation that precedes her, making her feel like a fun and novel take on Sherlock Holmes. Will serves as a nice contrast, a spunky ex-circus performer with a talent for knife throwing, lock picking, and a dozen other odd things. While her boss consults with people on Saturdays, Will hosts a self-defense class, teaching the women of the city how best to defend themselves.

Will and Lillian’s relationship is most present when Lillian’s multiple sclerosis flares up. Lillian often has difficulty with otherwise simple things, so Will assists her and takes over completely when possible, such as interviewing possible witnesses. The pair’s bond is given a tragic angle, the silent knowledge that at some point Lillian will no longer be able to investigate due to her condition. Will’s good nature is at its clearest here, the unabashed kindness and care she shows her mentor a nice splash of emotional warmth in an otherwise tense and exciting adventure, a kindness that Lillian returns throughout the story.

Queerness runs throughout the story. Will is bisexual, and the mutual attraction between her and Becca Collins, the daughter of the victim, runs throughout the story. Their courtship serves as a source of tension between multiple other characters, especially given the setting. In New York in 1945, same-sex relations were more than just frowned upon, and Will is threatened with physical violence several times during the story just for her interest in Becca. Seeing her rise to and above these threats, as well as the actions of her mentor to support and defend her, is deeply satisfying.

Pentecost and Parker are a version of Holmes and Watson that I didn’t know I needed until now, and I can’t wait to see more of them. The partnership between the two characters is wonderful, the mystery draws you in and makes you want to solve it, and the representation of not just queerness but also disability really make this book stand out. As of the writing of this review, two more books in this series are released, with a fourth on the way, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Pentecost and Parker.

Danielle reviews Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress

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Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress is a novel that follows four artists as they embark first on art school before conquering New York City. I loved everything about this novel. Everything. The characters are rich: Angress has done a phenomenal job of creating realistic characters who are not always likable—which, to me, makes them even more real. The four artists are flawed, have their own anxieties and grievances, and are at times self-conscious. Despite times throughout the novel when they are extremely unlikeable, by the end of the novel, two of the four characters, Karina and Louisa, have become some of my favourite fictional characters. It’s important to note that Angress seems to be a master of character development. Cruel at times, each character stumbles. I loved watching each character change direction and reach their potentials despite their earlier suffering and anxieties.

The dynamic between Karina and Louisa is what makes Sirens & Muses for me. Its 368 pages simply don’t have enough of them together. Karina is the character I found most difficult to like at the start of the novel, while Louisa is easy to love. By the time I finished reading, I’d fallen in love with both of them. Between the lines, they have a beautiful love story: obscured by the other two characters’ stories, Angress gave just enough to pull me into their relationship, and desperately hope for some sort of sequel to their story.

My heart hurt for the characters throughout Sirens & Muses. I found myself truly caring about them, and in that sense, Angress has created a masterpiece. The novel is part academic, part love story, part art discourse, and she weaves all of those themes together seamlessly. It is a smart, well-written book that I was immediately captivated by, and have remained captivated by weeks after reading it.

It was the perfect length, leaving you satisfied yet still wanting more, and with such realistic and detailed descriptions of the characters’ art, I felt as though I was walking through an art gallery of their creations: a fictional art gallery filled with the fictional art created by fictional characters. Angress has written a vivid and captivating novel that comes to life off the pages.

Danielle is a Lesbrary guest reviewer. If you would like to submit a review to be featured on the Lesbrary, check out the About page for more information.

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Shana reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is a novella about a second chance romance between Likotsi, an African woman visiting New York City, and Fabiola, the Haitian-American femme from Brooklyn who she can’t stop thinking about.

The story is part of Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which primarily features straight couples. Likotsi was my favorite character from the first book, and I was thrilled when she got her own story. The cover is amazeballs! I would love to have it as a poster for my wall. I often get annoyed by singular queer stories in a straight-ish series because they feel like throwaways, but this book delighted me.

Likotsi is the assistant to Prince Thabiso, the protagonist in A Princess in Theory, the Coming to America + Black Panther mashup in which she features heavily. Likotsi lives in a fictional African country that feels vaguely like Lesotho, but even more like Wakanda. She lives a fairly luxurious life, thanks to her proximity to royalty. Likotsi frequently travels for work and loves her all-consuming job, but she struggles to take breaks from running the Prince’s life and getting his UN policy priorities passed. The book opens with Likotsi enjoying a rare weekend off in New York, doing touristy things. She’s trying to distract herself from brooding about the woman she met in NYC eight months ago. Unfortunately for her, on her very first morning of vacation she runs into the girl on the subway.

Fabiola is an aspiring jewelry artist, and an accountant who loves math. She spends a lot of time worrying about her extended family, some of whom are undocumented immigrants. Fabiola has a fantastic sense of style, and I found myself drooling over her femmy outfit descriptions. When Likotsi and Fabiola meet up in the subway car, they’re both wary of one another. Likotsi is still smarting about Fabiola dumping her without an explanation. Fabiola isn’t sure if Likotsi can handle her complicated family situation. They end up exploring Fabiola’s favorite parts of the City together, while we’re treated to flashbacks of their initial whirlwind romance. Likotsi and Fabiola first met through a dating app, but the casual connection they were both planning on, quickly turned more serious. So why did Fabiola end it so abruptly, and can a relationship work when they live on different continents?

This was a fast and lighthearted read. I loved the evocative New York City setting, and enjoyed vicariously tagging along on the heroines’ adventures. I sympathized with Fabiola even though she was a breaker-of-hearts, because her family’s situation is tough. However, because this is a fluffy romance, all problems are solved, with hot sex scenes along the way. The book has some royalty trope flavor, because one character has more social power than the other, but there weren’t any celebrity dynamics to get in the way.

I think Once Ghosted, Twice Shy works well as a standalone. There are passing references to characters from the previous book, and this story glosses over some of the cultural context of Likotsi’s country, but none of that would prevent a reader from following along with the story. The plot is pretty straightforward—women date, they fall in love, the end—which I found relaxing, but could be frustrating for readers looking for more twists and turns. I’m generally not a huge fan of flashbacks, and they sometimes disrupted the flow of the story here. But the flashbacks also added balance to their relationship dynamics, because Likotski drives their romance initially, and with Fabiola taking the lead the second time around.

I would love to read more characters like Likotsi in f/f romances. She’s a dandy who loves clothes; and an unapologetically romantic and squishy cinnamon roll. Likotsi has access to a great deal of power through her work, and I enjoyed seeing an African character in that role especially since Africans are underrepresented in American queer romance. I also adored watching the two women flirt by talking about math and art. The heroines in this slow burn story had excellent chemistry, and I was dying for them to get together. My main critique is that the book felt short. It’s only 106 pages, so we mostly see the characters on only a few epic dates. I was left wanting more of these two. Overall, a quick and pleasurable read.

Megan Casey reviews Tarnished Gold by Ann Aptaker

tarnished-gold

I can’t think of a better time to post this review because Tarnished Goldthe second book in Aptaker’s Cantor Gold series—has just been named the co-winner of the 2016 Golden Crown Literary Award in the Mystery category. It was previously named co-winner of the Lambda Award, making it the only book ever to have won both awards.

Tarnished Gold finds the dapper art smuggler Cantor Gold in trouble not only with the police, but with the New York mob as well. It seems that her client, for whom she recovered a Dürer landscape  painting from a Nazi in Europe, was brutally killed shortly after Cantor made the delivery. A mob boss is suspected, so to stop the cops from nosing around his business, he wants Cantor to find the killer—or else.

I’m a sucker for historical mysteries, so the fact that this book is set in 1950 already makes it a plus for me. But to keep on my right side, it has to sound like it was written in 1950 in addition to being well written and having interesting characters. Well, fear not, this book has all those. It may not be as good as Deborah Powell’s two novels about Hollis Carpenter, set in the 1930s, but it is well on the way. What it reminds me most of, though, is Therese Szymanski’s When the Dancing Stops, whose main character, Brett Higgins, also operates on the wrong side of the law.

Cantor Gold, like Brett, is a pretty unlikable character. For one thing, her face gets so continually banged up that many people’s first reaction would be to wince (she is, in fact, the Tarnished Gold of the title). She is intelligent, but selfish and she treats her women poorly. Her devotion to Sophie—a missing ex-girlfriend—may be sweet and honorable, but not at the expense of others who deserve better. As Cantor herself says, “I was always mystified by what Sophie saw in me.” Well, join the club. She also says, “I can be a cad and I know it.” But having a louse for a main character doesn’t mean a whole lot when the author is able to wield a keyboard as well as Aptaker does. In fact, it seems that she enjoys pointing out Cantor’s flaws.

When her woman-of-the-moment, Vivienne Parkhurst Trent, takes her to task for her ill treatment, Cantor agrees, although silently: “I’m speechless now, as if my tongue’s been cut out with the sharp blade of truth.” It is this kind of self-realization—and this kind of poetic writing—that puts this book in the way-above-average category. And Aptaker is a wiz with a simile. A police squad car—which Cantor loathes—is described as having “a chrome grill that looks like a mouth ready to spit.” It also“hugs the curb in front of my building like a rat claiming territory.” Not only are these descriptions vivid, but they are appropriate both for the time period and for Cantor’s mindset. It’s hard to get any better than a simile that works on three different levels.

I’ve already mentioned Szymanski’s book, but Tarnished Gold also reminds me of the fine novel by Lisa E. Davis, Under the Mink. The protagonist, Blackie Cole, is a 1940s nightclub singer who sometimes finds herself to the left of the straight and narrow. Like Cantor, she dresses mannish—so much so that she is always frightened that her place of business will be raided by the police and that she will be arrested for impersonating a man. The same holds true with Cantor and her friends—and the police in Tarnished Gold are not exemplary representatives of New York’s finest. The main cop in the story, Lieutenant Norm Huber, would do virtually anything to put Cantor in prison or in a psych unit. His vitriol is so palpable that we get the idea that he would gladly kill Cantor just to get such a pervert off the streets. I mean, it was bad in those days. Real bad.

Cantor, with her sidekicks Rosie the cab driver, Judson the information gatherer, and Red the tugboat skipper, have to delve into the very depths of New York’s criminal society to try and find out who is killing people and stealing their paintings. There are several more characters that increase the enjoyment of the story. One of them is Esther “Mom” Sheinbaum, a fence who seemingly can find out info on every piece of stolen goods in New York City. She reminds me much of Mrs. Sucksby, from Sarah Waters’ excellent Fingersmith. Sorry to drop so many names into this review, but I love it when an author pays homage to those who have gone before.

The novel has a few flaws (some of which I have communicated privately to the author), but nothing to bring it down to less than a 4.

Note: I read the Advanced Review Copy of this novel which was kindly provided by the publisher through Netgalley in e-book form.

For 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website atchttp://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries